In l976 a candidate for ordination as a minister of the Word and Sacrament had openly acknowledged he was gay. His presbytery, Long Island Presbytery, along with Palisades Presbytery, asked the General Assembly for definitive guidance on how to proceed. The issue that was initially raised was whether or not someone who was self-affirming as a gay or lesbian person could be ordained. The issue that was initially raised, according to McKelway, was not whether or not “homosexual orientation or practice as such” would be incompatible with ordination.
McKelway is suggesting whether or not a person is gay or lesbian should not be the issue. If someone wants to insist the church approve of his or her being gay and lesbian, the church can respond on that level. But, otherwise, the issue of whether or not a person is gay or lesbian does not need to be considered.
This position is supported by two inconsistencies McKelway found within the report of l978. First, the report acknowledges that homosexuality for most people is a matter of nature not of choice. Therefore it seems inconsistent to require gay and lesbian people to convert from their own nature, to practice celibacy or to repent. Second, “if the reason the Assembly adopted this study and guidance was to prohibit the imposition of homosexuality upon the church, it makes no sense to deny ordination to homosexuals who do not have that intention.”
“Where do we go from here?” McKelway asks and then suggests a possible course of action: “The church cannot approve of homosexuality, but it has in the past (absent public scandal or evidence of injury) accepted into its ministry homosexuals who do not insist upon that approval.” Instead of categorical approval or condemnation, why not allow for individual consideration and abide by such standards as we already have in Book of Order G-6.0106a.
The position suggested by McKelway will not please everyone. It will not please those who want the church to approve of being gay or lesbian. It will not please those who want the church to exclude people who are gay and lesbian. It may be a good expression of what Reinhold Neibuhr called a “tolerable harmony.” There is now discussion in our denomination of finding a “third way” in our present debate. This article may lead us there. It urges us to consider people for ordination as individuals. This is where Paul takes us in Galatians when he writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave of free, there is no longer male and female.” This is where the Book of Order takes us in prohibiting categorical exclusions.
LAIRD STUART is co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and pastor of Calvary church, San Francisco.